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Customer data integration tool's fuzzy search helps clear up call center confusion

Redundant customer data was costing Corporate Express time and money. Fuzzy search capabilities helped solve the problem.

When executives at Corporate Express began looking at ways to improve efficiency, they expected to find at least a few redundant servers or applications. What they discovered were more than two dozen separate customer data systems running throughout the company.

A subsidiary of Corporate Express NV in the Netherlands, the Broomfield, Colo.-based company had staked its claim as one of the top business-to-business office supplies vendors in the market thanks in part to numerous acquisitions over the last decade. But each acquisition brought with it not just revenue but customer data and databases as well. It didn't take long for the company to realize it needed to streamline operations.

"We started looking at our overall enterprise architecture, and one of the things we began to document was the amount of customer data replication we were doing," said Doug LaVelle, head of the company's business relationship management team. To make matters worse, customer data often needed to be entered into separate systems manually, LaVelle said, almost guaranteeing inconsistencies.

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To start the streamlining process, the company decided to consolidate its 28 call centers -- distributed throughout the country -- into one main call center with a secondary, back-up location. LaVelle and his team began identifying the processes used in those call centers to conduct customer transactions and discovered no fewer than 26 systems containing customer data. "[Not surprisingly] we saw a lot inefficiencies with how [call center representatives] went in and found customers in the different systems," LaVelle said.

Call center efficiency is measured by handle time -- the amount of time it takes call center representatives to successfully complete a customer transaction. In a large call center, reducing handle times by just 15 seconds can have a major impact on the bottom line. Corporate Express call center reps were clearly spending more time than they should searching for customer information, thereby increasing handle times and losing money for the company.

After evaluating several solutions, LaVelle and his team settled on customer data integration (CDI) vendor Purisma -- since acquired by Dun & Bradstreet -- to help solve the problem. The goal was to use Purisma's CDI tool to access customer data from the company's various data sources via "fuzzy search." A fuzzy search can reconcile various data entries for the same customer or product. If a customer is entered into various data sources by various names – say "John Smith" in one database, and "Mr. J. Smith" in another – a fuzzy search can identify the two as the same customer and present the correct data to the call center rep.

The project began beta testing with between 10 and 20 call center reps in September and went live across the company in December. While he does not have exact figures, LaVelle said handle times were indeed down thanks to Purisma's fuzzy search capabilities.

The biggest challenge in the call center project, he said, was actually not technology-related at all. It was convincing management to spend the money on a back-end software system that was less visible than, say, Corporate Express's e-commerce engine. The solution? LaVelle and his team sold the call center-CDI initiative as an add-on to a separate project aimed at consolidating the company's various order-capture engines.

"The struggle for us with that was when you look at the costs of these software packages in the CDM [customer data management] space, it's hard to justify the spend," he said. "So what we ended up doing was to go [to management] and say we have this other initiative, this order-capture initiative, and what we did was we tacked it on."

LaVelle said communicating the expected benefits of the call center project to the various business units involved, and managing the many stakeholders' expectations, were also key steps.

"When we looked at this project, we had benefit cases that were marketing-specific, merchandizing-specific and customer care-specific. We … had an IT benefit case as well," he said. "We were responsible for communicating that to the business and to the executive group that does the funding approval."

Once the order-capture engine project goes live, probably sometime in March, both Corporate Express's call center representatives and e-commerce users will be able to access customer data from the same Purisma application. Finally, everyone will be on the same page.

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